Guest blog by Grace Elliot, author of The Ringmaster's Daughter
Have you heard of a pleasure garden?
Pleasure gardens were all the rage in Georgian and Victorian England, and as the name suggests they were open air spaces where people went to be entertained. It’s difficult to think of a modern equivalent and perhaps closest would be an amusement park or major concert venue but neither of these reflect the varied nature of the entertainments that were found in a pleasure garden. In the 18th and 19th centuries, gardens such as Ranelagh and Vauxhall held open air concerts, firework displays and balls, and the visitor would encounter strolling musicians, acrobats and singers, they could shelter in an exotic pavilion, rotunda or a supper box, or else walk along lantern lit paths to see mirror fountains, trompe l’oeil grottos, light shows and statues. Indeed when the 18th century novelist Tobias Smollett visited Ranelagh he described it thus:
“[Ranelagh] made me almost think I was in some enchanted castle or fairy palace.”
The reason for his delight were the nightly illuminations which consisted of ropes of coloured lanterns strung along vast avenues of trees – if you remember that this was in an era when there was no electricity and candles were a luxury, such a display was extravagant to say the least. Indeed, such was the fascination with light that visitors came specifically to see the almost miraculous spectacle of the lanterns lit simultaneously via a special fuse mechanism. (The usual way of lighting lamps was a man and a taper, so this sight was truly breathtaking).
Such was the popularity of pleasure gardens that eminent composers such as Handel premiered work there, including his Royal fireworks music. Indeed, as a publicity stunt a barge sailed along the Thames with musicians playing excerpts on board, to entice visitors along.
Gardens such as Vauxhall were described as ‘an Elysium on earth’, or an earthly paradise away from the noise, smell and bustle of London. For the one shilling entry fee anyone from the common man to a prince could walk through enchanted grottoes and marvel at the wonderous sights with his sweetheart. And hence the reason for my post. What better setting for a series of romances than the backdrop of a pleasure garden?
My latest release, The Ringmaster's Daughter, features the fictional pleasure gardens at Foxhall. Indeed, the idea came from my fascination with the actual Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. In #1 of the Foxhall series we join our heroine, Henrietta Hart, with her father’s livelihood is in danger. She enters a battle of wills with the new manager, Tobias Wolfson, and as mutual attraction grows between them, they face a stark choice between love and survival…
Excerpt: Chapter 1
So far that morning, Tobias Wolfson, the new manager of Foxhall Pleasure Gardens, had watched an overweight acrobat, an arthritic contortionist and a ballad singer who was so out of tune that she made his teeth ache. Small wonder the gardens were losing money, he reflected, if these were Foxhall’s best entertainments. And given that the next act was late, his mood showed no sign of improving as he stared across the deserted stable yard.
“Perchance Mr Hart does not value his job?” Wolfson said.
At his side, a florid man in a periwig, smiled nervously. “He should be here, I told him myself.”
“Where is he, Mr Uglow? Answer me that!”
Mr Uglow’s shoulders drooped. “Happen Mr Hart has been detained.”
“Hart’s Performing Horses,” Wolfson murmured, making a mental note to strike the act from the list of those retained.
“Perhaps he’s inside.” Uglow’s plump hand gestured towards the large stone barn.
Wolfson studied the two-story building. Evidently the stables and a tack room were on the ground floor, while the upper housed both a hayloft and some cramped accommodation. He nodded toward the loft.
“Mr Hart and his daughter live up there. Anyone else?”
“No. There was a groom, but he was let go.”
“A quick look and if Hart’s not there, it’s his loss.”
With a grunt, Wolfson marched toward the tack room but, as he passed through the open door, he felt a disturbance in the air and — before he could shout a warning — a young woman cannoned into the wall of his chest. She hit with such force, he heard the breath knocked from her lungs as she rebounded and tumbled backwards. By sheer reflex, Wolfson grabbed her upper arms to steady her. Instead of seeming grateful for his help, the girl glared back, her dark eyes fizzing angry as a wasp’s nest poked with a stick.
Raising a brow, he studied this whirlwind. She had an oval-shaped face, her complexion glowed with health and hair, the color of ripe chestnuts, fell in a thick plait down to her bottom. She was dressed in working clothes, an apron covering a plain woolen skirt, a chemise and a shawl. She was, he realized, a young woman rather than a girl – with a curvaceous figure to match. His interest peeked.
“Sir, release me!” She jerked a shoulder.
With a start, Wolfson found he still gripped her surprisingly muscular upper arms. “Apologies, madam.” He let go and couldn’t help inspecting his hands, puzzled by the tingle of static on his palms. Bemused, he looked up to find her staring back, her mouth softly parted in question. Feeling an unwanted tug of attraction, Wolfson scowled.
Composing herself, the woman stood hands on hips, her brow furrowed in challenge. “What are you doing in my yard?”
Bold as a lioness, she held her head high, and something jumped inside Wolfson as he returned her stare. Even standing still, she exuded energy — and the faint smell of lavender and horses. Perhaps it was the vivacity behind those dark eyes — so dark as to be almost black — or that determined expression, but her spirit excited Wolfson and his brow rose further.
“Your yard?” he said, faintly amused.
Mr Uglow coughed politely. “Ah, this is Mr Hart’s daughter, Henrietta — she may know what has detained her father.”
For the first time, the young woman faltered. “You want Pa?”
“Indeed, I would be most grateful,” Wolfson continued, “unless he has more important matters to attend to than keeping his place.”
Miss Hart eyed him suspiciously. “And you are?”
With an ironic smile, Wolfson tipped his tricorn hat. “Mr Wolfson, new manager of the Foxhall Pleasure Gardens.”
Miss Hart hesitated, her gaze flicked to the stout man by his side. “The gossip is true — Mr Uglow isn’t running things anymore?”
Wolfson proceeded smoothly, “Mr Uglow continues as a valuable asset to the gardens, but I am here to ease his workload and provide fresh insight during the renovations.”
“Mr Wolfson and I will be working together.” Uglow’s tight lips suggested he disliked the arrangement.
“Oh, I see,” Her dark eyes widened and deepened to black. “And you wanted Pa because…?”
“To decide the act’s future.”
Was his imagination or had Miss Hart just trembled? Beside him, Mr Uglow shuffled his feet. With effort, Wolfson marshalled his thoughts back to the task in hand.
“Miss Hart, will your father be honoring us with his presence?”
“Pa’s out. Being fitted for a new costume. Not expected back afore late afternoon.” She held his gaze, but Wolfson’s skin prickled as it did when he was being lied to.
“Is that right?”
Miss Hart licked her lips. “I just said so.”
Wolfson arched a brow at her impertinence but let the disagreement go, for he would get to the bottom of matters in his own time. He folded his arms across his chest, tapping a manicured finger against the opposite sleeve.
“I understand your father has performed at Foxhall for many years.”
“Yes, sir. He started when I was a babe in arms. There was a time when Hart’s Performing Horses were the star attraction,” she added hastily. “Of course the act is still very popular.”
Wolfson inclined his head toward Mr Uglow. “What are the gate receipts like?”
The ruddy-faced man waved his hands in exasperation. “I’m far too busy running the gardens to keep track of every little detail.”
Wolfson hid his irritation behind a genial smile. “But you can find out?”
“I suppose so. There will be ledgers somewhere.”
“Have them sent to my office as a matter of priority. And Miss Hart,” He faced those devastating dark eyes – that he decided were a deep hazel, bordering on brown. “Please explain why last night’s performance was cancelled.”
Her skin, lightly tanned from time spent outdoors, paled slightly. “The lead horse, Stardust, he went lame.”
There it was again, the skin prickling sensation. For some reason Miss Hart was lying, but he nodded as if sympathetic. “I trust he will be fit for tonight.”
“Oh yes, sir.” She smiled, but her lip quivered. Clearly something was troubling her.
“Even so, I would like to speak with Mr Hart urgently.”
“I can pass on a message.”
“Very well. Tell your father that tonight I will be in the audience deciding whether or not to re-commission the act. Nothing I have seen or heard to date inspires confidence. I suggest he gives the performance of his life.”
For the first time, Miss Hart seemed dumb-founded. “Of course, Mr Wolfson, I will tell him.”
“Good,” he sighed. “Next on my list are the giant tortoise and his handler. Lead on, Mr Uglow, lead on.”
Aware of Miss Hart’s eyes burning into his back, he left the stable yard with the niggling impression that Miss Hart was as an uncut diamond amongst coals.
The Ringmaster’s Daughter – synopsis
The ringmaster’s daughter, Henrietta Hart, was born and raised around the stables of Foxhall Gardens. Now her father is gravely ill, and their livelihood in danger. The Harts' only hope is to convince Foxhall’s new manager, Mr Wolfson, to let Hetty wield the ringmaster’s whip. Hetty finds herself drawn to the arrogant Wolfson but, despite their mutual attraction, he gives her an ultimatum: entertain as never before – or leave Foxhall.
When the winsome Hetty defies society and performs in breeches, Wolfson’s stony heart is in danger. Loath as he is to admit it, Hetty has a way with horses…and men. Her audacity and determination awaken emotions long since suppressed.
But Hetty’s success in the ring threatens her future when she attracts the eye of the lascivious Lord Fordyce. The duke is determined, by fair means or foul, to possess Hetty as his mistress – and, as Wolfson’s feelings for Henrietta grow, disaster looms.
Grace Elliot leads a double life as a veterinarian by day and author of historical romance by night. Grace lives near London and is housekeeping staff to five cats, two teenage sons, one husband and a bearded dragon.
Grace believes that everyone needs romance in their lives as an antidote to the modern world. The Ringmaster’s Daughter is Grace’s fifth novel, and the first in a new series of Georgian romances.
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